Strength training mobility

Mobility: does strength training make us less flexible?

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Some strength training fiends may deadlift heavy weights but get them to touch their toes and suddenly, they’re in trouble. Is that reduced range of motion caused by their increased muscle mass, or do people build strength in spite of being inflexible?  

Many of us will know someone who spends loads of time weight training but can barely touch their toes. They may lift heavy but when it comes to mobility, they’re like a creaking old gate. Why is that? Is it their strength training that chips away at their flexibility, or are they simply not doing enough mobility work in the first place?

Clearly, it’s no good being able to squat heavy or deadlift our own bodyweight if we can’t squat deep or hinge forward to any real depth. And if you can’t balance (important for avoiding accidental falls), what good is being able to chest press the weight of a small child? Functional fitness is all about moving well – and being mobile. But what impact does getting stronger have on our mobility and does strength training make us less mobile and flexible?

“Strength training does not make us less mobile,” confirms Strong Women Training Club ambassador, Emma Obayuvana. “If exercises are performed well with correct movement pattern and form, and with a full range of motion, mobility will not be impacted.”

Emma, who leads a series of 15-minute mobility workouts on the Training Club, explains that mobility is hugely important for anyone who lifts weights because it decreases the risk of injury by improving our movement patterns.

Injury prevention isn’t the only reason to concentrate on mobility, however. A limited range of motion translates into limited muscle growth, says a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Researchers compared doing 12 weeks of shallow squats to three months of deep squats. They found (unsurprisingly) that the deeper the squat, the more thigh muscle, improved knee extension and flexion, and squat-jump power was generated.

These benefits are specific to mobility – they don’t apply to generic stretching. In fact, a 2017 paper published in the Sports Medicine journal found that mobility workouts were better than static stretches for increasing range. Mobility isn’t the same as a standard stretch. Emma explains that “simple stretch positions are held without movement – they involve passive stretching. In mobility, we are moving the joint through the range of motion that the joint is intended to move in,” making it more dynamic. 

Better mobility means performing strength exercises with correct form – meaning that you’ll get the most out of every, single rep. “Being able to drop into a deeper squat, for example, enables you to build even stronger legs,” Emma points out.

Why then are so many people so inflexible? Most of the time, it’s nothing to do with the way you train but how you spend the rest of the day. Sitting at a desk for eight or nine hours is notoriously bad for hip health; if you struggle with keeping your shoulders retracted during a deadlift or going deep into a squat, your desk set-up might be the problem. You can improve both with mobility exercises that get you moving laterally or specifically open up the hips and chest (see suggestions below).

If strength is your goal, you might still hesitate before swapping your weights session for a mobility class – but you’d be foolish to pit one against the other. Think of your strength workouts as the sausage in a sausage roll; they’re at the centre of your fitness regime but complimenting them with mobility sessions (the pastry) creates magic. While mobility itself might not make you stronger, improving your range of motion means promoting better muscle development and, in turn, strength.

Not sure where to begin with adding mobility to your regime? Carve out a little time during your next rest day to explore what stretches and movements suit you. Mobility work only takes 15 minutes and will make your other workouts more effective

6 simple mobility workout for strength trainers

Walkout into World’s Greatest Stretch

The ultimate move for waking up the entire body, this compound stretch targets the hamstrings, hips, shoulders, core, upper back and more.

Cobra

Open up the front body by gently lifting up from the navel – a movement we rarely do in everyday life but which can really help to release tension.

Seated spinal twist

Work out any crunchy bits that have developed from hours spent slouched over your laptop by twisting and rotating the upper back.

Prone angel

Another move that targets the back muscles, Prone Angel taps into lower back strength by mimicking the same pattern as Cobra – but without the helping hands.

Kneeling hip hinge

Tight hips? A kneeling hip hinge will help to open them out. We can’t promise that it’ll be easy but you’re guaranteed to feel better afterwards.

Puppy dog

One to finish up with, Puppy Dog is like a more dynamic Child’s Pose. It increases the range of motion in the shoulders – useful after a few days of shoulder presses!

Ready to improve your flexibility and range of motion? Check out our new series of mobility workout videos on the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty/Stylist

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.

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